Shara Yuki Enay Birbirsa
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
I like to think I have a pretty good self-awareness. But when I shared that with my older sister a few months ago, she looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Oh really?! That right there shows your lack of self-awareness . . .”
On my last day as a staff writer for The Hawai‘i Herald, my co-workers gave me a homemade card as a send-off gift. On the front was a goofy picture of me eating (what a shocker!) and making a funny face. Inside, each co-worker wrote one word that described me: “funny,” “outspoken,” “clever,” “loud,” “hardworking.” It was a great parting gift and I still have it over 10 years later.
That’s what I mean about having good self-awareness. None of the words on the card surprised me. After all, I do try hard, I am quick with my mouth, I do make big noise, and I certainly don’t have any problem expressing my thoughts or feelings. What I did notice, however, was that no one described me as “calm,” “easy-going,” “relaxed,” “even-keeled” or “patient.” Again, no big shocker since I am none of those things.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I — the woman whose column is called “Drama Queen Journals” for a reason; who, as an adult, was asked to keep my noise level down at Fun Factory while playing air hockey; and who tears up every time those commercials showing abused and neglected puppies comes on TV — was selected to become a member of Läna‘i’s Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, for short.
“Ummmm, what can I really do besides scream really loud so the police can find us in an emergency?” I asked my boss. She explained that I would be trained to assist in emergency situations, such as mass casualties resulting from a hurricane, flood or other natural disasters. Not only that, I was being trained to become a trainer so that I could one day help lead the class.
“Are you serious?!” I asked. “There are tons of other people who would be a better fit than me.”
“You’re right,” she responded. “We’re both not good fits, yet. But that’s why we’re getting trained, so you can do more than just yell.”
So, every Saturday in February and for three days in March, I am attending CERT classes, which are designed to educate people about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area and train them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization and disaster medical operations. CERT members will be trained to assist others in their neighborhood or workplace in the event professional responders are not immediately available. Yes, yours truly should, at the end of this training, be able to do all of that. Some of the people I’ve told about my new responsibilities looked a little scared, and a few of my friends told me they’re glad they don’t live in my neighborhood.
This past Saturday, we learned how to triage and treat the injured in the event of mass casualties. Because of Läna‘i’s few hospital beds and limited emergency services and capabilities, “mass casualty” here is defined as five or more people. In the beginning of class, we went around the room and shared any prior emergency response training we had received and if we’d ever seen a dead body or someone badly injured.
I said I had witnessed the scene of a couple of bad car accidents, including a few fatal ones. I interned at KHON TV in my senior year at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. One day, en route back to the station with a cameraman, we were dispatched to the scene of a car accident. I could hear first responders over the police scanner talking about possible critical injuries and that a person had been ejected from the car. My heart started to race; I got really sweaty and my stomach began to turn.
We were on the scene in minutes. “Stay here while I go check it out,” the cameraman said. “If I give you the signal, you better be ready.” I watched him like a hawk; I don’t think I blinked even once in five minutes so I wouldn’t miss his signal — and I prayed for no signal. But it came. I dashed out of the car with my notepad shaking in my hand and listened to the police describe the scene. It was taped off and barely visible from where I was standing. One person was pinned under one vehicle and another had been ejected. I started to get dizzy as the officer told his commander about missing limbs and how they needed to use the Jaws of Life to get to another person. I felt faint and thought I was going to vomit right there on the sidewalk. The cameraman saw my face and told me that a (“real”) reporter had arrived and told me to go sit in the car, “before the paramedics have to stop what they’re doing and work on you,” he said. I’m sure he could tell that I was on the verge of passing out. As I sat in the car and tried my best to avoid seeing any of the missing limbs or ejected bodies, I knew that I did not have the stomach to be a broadcast journalist.
After hearing my reaction to this accident, one of the firefighters conducting the CERT training looked worried for me — and the Läna‘i community. “You will never get used to seeing that kind of stuff, especially when someone passes away, but that’s what this training is about,” he told me. “All we can do is train and prepare and take preventive measures, so that we’re ready if something does happen.”
This is where “self-awareness” kicks in again. During the training, I could barely look at photos of bad burns or protruding broken bones. How am I supposed to triage and treat wounded people, and possibly even babies, when I can’t even look at pictures without getting grossed out, I wondered. It’s like when I was in Ethiopia and one of the kids fell down and cried — my heart hurt, too. I knew I wasn’t thick-skinned enough to be an emergency response worker, so I felt like I was just taking up space in the class because I would probably freak out in a mass casualty situation.
But as the day progressed and we learned more about how CERT trainees can assist their community, I found my niche: In an emergency in which multiple people need care or assistance, someone needs to be the scribe. My journalism training taught me to be a good listener, to pay attention to details, take good notes and communicate effectively with others. I began to feel a little better. It’s not a sexy job to report to the incident Commander the number of fatalities, or the badly or mildly injured people, but someone has to do it — and that someone could be me. Yes, I’d still have to learn how to control my emotions, be calm and deliver the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of people, but at least I found a job that I knew I could do well.
But being the scribe isn’t all that easy. In our simulation exercise, team members acted out different scenarios — some played dead victims; others pretended they were badly injured. My job was to triage the handful of actors and then, in 30 seconds or less, determine whether they needed immediate care, could wait on their care, were walking wounded, or dead. My heart was pounding and I sweated the whole time. When I had to pronounce my first victim dead, my handwriting was shaky and I second-guessed myself. After all, I wanted to make sure the buggah was really dead before I moved on to assess the next pretend victim.
By the end of the class, I was emotionally and mentally drained. The exercises were simulated, but they were intense, nevertheless. Last week, I learned how to put out a fire, and just this past week, I learned how to stop bleeding, bandage wounds, open a blocked airway, make a splint and conduct a head-to-toe assessment of an injured person.
Of course, we all hope we never have to actually use any of the techniques we learned, but our trainers reminded us that in the past few years, four major hurricanes have passed through Hawai‘i, each with the potential to do major damage. Thankfully, Läna‘i was spared any major damage and no one was injured. But, it could happen one day.
That brings me back to my perceived strong self-awareness. My New Year’s resolutions are always aimed at stretching my wings, trying different things (especially things that make me uncomfortable, or how else will I grow, right?), learning new skills and living with purpose. I accept that I don’t have the skills or the stomach to be a first responder, or a nurse or doctor. I’m also aware that I generally perform well under pressure, and even though I’m a nervous, dramatic wreck inside, I’ve always had the acting chops to appear calm, cool and collected. Heck, by the end of class, I was no longer taking two minutes to assess the dead; I followed the steps, practiced what I learned, made a firm decision and moved on to the next person. I was practically yelling out, “He’s a goner . . . Next!” Of course, I was just joking around, but I like CERT’s unofficial motto: Provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people.”
I’m hoping that by the time these classes conclude, I’ll be able to contain my nerves and feel more confident about the training I’m receiving. I’m sure it’ll take many more hours and more classes for me to feel comfortable as a new CERT member. Until then, I know another mantra someone once shared: “Fake it ’til you make it.”
Shara Enay Birbirsa resides on the island of Läna‘i, where she is Pülama Läna‘i’s liaison with the community. Shara is a former writer for The Hawai‘i Herald and Hawaii Business magazine. She has been writing this Drama Queen Journals column since 2006.